Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sounding off on Cubicle Survival Tips

Dealing with noise in the cubicle

There are many things I hate about spending 40+ hours a week in cubicle, and probably the biggest issue I'm currently facing is noise. Now, I like to multitask and usually have a TV or radio going in the background when I'm working at home. But that noise level is controllable and it usually helps me focus. In the office, it’s a different story. Quite often it happens right when I'm trying to read some detailed article or I'm in a hurry to put together an email or presentation: Someone starts talking in a very loud voice and throws my concentration off.

I'm currently sitting in what is probably one of the noisiest offices I have worked in since moving to the cubicle world. I have a corner cube, which has its own issues, and it's located along a busy passage way that people use to get to another side of the building. I also happen to be unlucky enough to be positioned right next to two executive conference rooms, where meetings are often held with the door open. Also, when people in those meetings get a call on their cell, they step just outside the door, right next to my cube, to make their calls. Since these are executive conference rooms, I'm less inclined to pop my head up and ask people to be quiet. Also, in the next cubicle over is a printer station, and while the printer itself adds to the background noise, it is not a huge distraction. The main problem is the people who drop in to use the printer station as a phone booth.

Aside from the bad location, I also have very loud neighbors. The guy right next to me uses a wireless headset and he likes to talk while he paces his cube. The result is that his voice projects over the top of the cube and has a varying and unpredictable volume level, as he turns away and back toward me as he paces. Next to him and adjacent to my office is a "bear". Well, it's really a person, but he has a loud, sharp growling voice and always speaks much louder than is needed for normal phone and office conversations. When he starts talking, I have a tendency to jump out of my seat a bit. Then, just on the other side of the pacing guy is another wireless headset guy who seems uncomfortable with his headset and feels he has to shout when using it in order to be heard. I have learned to mostly deal with these noises as they come up, but in certain conditions when they all join together in concert, it becomes unbearable and I have to grab my stuff in search of an empty conference room or cafeteria table. When this is not an option, there are few things that can sometimes help:

Headphones. Get a good pair of noise-canceling ones. I bought a cheap pair that have broken to pieces over the past couple of years and are currently held together with cellophane tape, so I really should dump these and invest in a good pair.

Music. Find a good online radio station that plays a steady stream of music with little talking (you don't need more conversations to compete with the ones you're already trying to drown out.) Yes, I know about the recent studies that say people don't learn well when multitasking--assuming that listening to the radio is multitasking--but did those studies compare learning and retention rates from people in very noisy offices? MP3 are good too, but unless you have a huge collection you'll soon get tired of the repetition. Or try a white noise generator, like the software app in the link below.

Earplugs. Ah, this is how I survived my first year of college in a triple dorm room. While they may give you a somewhat antisocial look to people who pop in your cube unannounced, they definitely muffle the noise. Use them in combination with noise-canceling headphones for a few blissful moments of near silence.

Fan. If you can, get a fan. Or a desktop air cleaner. There are multiple benefits with this one. Not only do you get a cool breeze when the stagnant cubicle air is stirred around a bit, but it's great for white noise, which can help cover up some of the odd noises your neighbor makes. You can also use it to clear the air around your space of those annoying food odors that waft your way into your cube when your neighbor decides to have fish and broccoli for lunch at his desk.

Leave. If all else fails, get up from your desk and find a nice quiet spot. Even the restroom is good for a few quiet moments to clear your head, provided you visit in between meeting breaks (avoid 10 min before and after the top of the hour). The cafeteria is also good if you go more than an hour before or after lunch.

I have tried all of these tools during my life as a cubicle dweller, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in combinations and they usually help me get through the day. Of course, always remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end and treat your neighbors like you'd wish they would treat you by keeping down the noise level. If you have other good suggestions, please share them.


Some interesting links:

Cornell News: Noisy office effects

Ear Plug Store

Koss Quiet Zone Noise Cancellng Stereophones
(I'm thinking about ordering these to replace my old broken Panasonic set.)

Vectormedia Software's Sound Masker
I'm testing out the demo version now and I'm pretty impressed so far.)

Vermont Public Radio, Classical Music online

Radio Alice, music from the 80's, 90's and now